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It's not a mainstream film, but Like Someone in Love tells us no more about the realities of prostitution than Pretty Woman

Like Someone in Love by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses prostitution as a means to pursue its own ends: an analysis of identity and everyday role playing, without the slightest hint of smut.

Like Someone in Love (12A)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

The lesson that audiences took away from the hit romantic comedy Pretty Woman was that prostitution was a viable way for a young woman to meet Richard Gere or his nearest available equivalent. All that soulless intimacy and the absence of most of the perks associated with more conventional jobs (health insurance or the use of a crèche) would be compensated for once a millionaire pitched up at the kerbside, offering a life of affluence and absolutely no beatings or crack cocaine.

It’s easy, not to mention enjoyable, to sneer at the Hollywood version of the oldest profession but prostitution isn’t handled with any greater depth in Like Someone in Love, which is as far from mainstream cinema as Gere is from humility.

This is the elliptical new film from the Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, working here in Tokyo with a Japanese cast and French and Japanese funding. Art cinema has always entertained a fascination with the prostitute, bewitched perhaps by her (and it’s usually a “her”) aspiration to separate desire and economics definitively; it’s the sort of emotional schism well-suited to a storytelling model specialising in the psychological. It would be naive to pretend that the potential for nudity doesn’t help or that the overlap has not been considerable between art-house audiences and what was once known as the “dirty mac brigade”. (I’m not sure what we call them now that dirty mackintosh manufacturing has joined the seemingly endless list of industries killed off by the internet.)

Like Someone in Love is chaste but it uses prostitution conveniently for its own ends – in this case, not romantic idealism but an analysis of everyday role playing. Any nastiness is blotted out; the film is tasteful to a fault. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a student coerced into moonlighting as an escort. Her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), is oblivious, while the grandmother she was supposed to meet at the station has been left to fend for herself. It could be worse. The evening’s work for Akiko consists only of being driven to the apartment of an elderly writer, Wata - nabe (Tadashi Okuno), who engages her in conversation and serves her dinner. Talk about kinky.

The meat of the film lies not in this encounter but in the misunderstandings that arise from it. Kiarostami gives us fair warning that identity will be a slippery business when he opens the picture with a shot of several sets of customers in a bar. Common sense tells us that the conversation we can hear is not attributable to any of the people on-screen but that doesn’t stop the brain from trying to match sound to image.

This dislocation effect resurfaces occasionally during the movie. Miscommunication is rife. Granny leaves a string of phone messages that Akiko doesn’t retrieve until it is too late. Noriaki is so aware of the potential for deceit in a phone call that he sets Akiko challenges to ascertain her whereabouts. When Akiko reaches Watanabe’s apartment, the old man’s telephone seems to ring endlessly. Mobile phones were always interrupting tranquillity in Kiarostami’s 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us and their bothersome presence in the new picture suggests that the director hasn’t yet found that elusive ideal network.

Examples of mistaken identity are rarely more extreme than the one that occurs in the second half of Like Someone in Love, in which Noriaki ends up asking Watanabe for permission to marry Akiko, having assumed that he is her grandfather. The same error is made by one of Watanabe’s neighbours. But a fatal air of smugness hangs over these scenes, as it sometimes can when an audience is so many steps ahead of the action.

This is in direct contrast to Kiarostami’s last film, Certified Copy, in which two apparent strangers turned out, as the story progressed, to have been married, possibly for many years. Even when that picture was over, the mystery surrounding the exact nature of their relationship remained unsolved.

Certified Copy was rather solemn but at least it erred on the side of the enigmatic. Like Someone in Love, on the other hand, is like a puzzle that takes an eternity to complete and yet still somehow contains too few pieces to be taxing.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.